Unique Special Education Program Provides Life Skills for Locke’s Workers

by JACK MELANSON, Staff Writer

Locke’s Loft is viewed by most Manhattan College students as a place to go to and relax, eat and catch up with friends after or in-between classes. This is not the case for the 12 special education students who use the dining hall as their classroom.

The Department of Education has paired up with Manhattan College as well as Gourmet Dining to give special needs students a form of post secondary education revolving around acquiring essential skills to be a part of the workforce. This program has existed on campus for 16 years.

Students with special needs from the ages of 16 to 21 learn vocational and job development skills through a five day schedule, where from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. they work at Locke’s Loft along with having a 45 minute instruction period in a classroom setting. Such classes are usually held at Cafe 1853.

LaTanya Wilson, six-year teacher of the program, elaborated on the effectiveness of the schooling.

“It shows how much they’re capable of, instead of pushing them aside and showing them what they’re not capable of.”

Wilson is accompanied by Reynalda Peralata, the only other teacher in the program.

She went on to add that this non-traditional classroom setting teaches “workplace communication and social skills,” a barrier that often stands in the way for students of the program.

“They can get a job anywhere with all these skills,” Wilson said.

Brian Conway, assistant general manager for Gourmet Dining Services, is also very much so on board with allowing the students to come, work and learn on a regular basis.

“I can’t ask for a better employee, I mean these guys take pride in their work, they like what they do, and they really follow rules without discussion. They are essentially the great employee I always look for,” Conway said.

“I have gone ahead and hired 100 percent of people who want a job.”

“Because of the great teachers that they have, and the rotation schedule that they use, you eventually find a great niche for the student to be in,” Conway said.

“Whether it’s stocking the shelves, or all that there is to do in Locke’s–there is so much to do in Locke’s.”

Students are able to establish routines, find comfort, get confidence and work productively.

These 12 students are not just employees.

“These guys are characters,” Conway said. “We fall in love with these kids, these are members of our family, we see them everyday, you hear the struggles they go through, you see the great strides that they make.”

Conway noted that at the annual Christmas party, “our staff will refrain from taking presents, and give the kids the presents. One of our employees went out and got shoes for all of them for Christmas…with his bonus money. And that was an hourly employee, not a salary employee.”

One specific student, Melody Rosado, works mostly with baking at Locke’s Loft.

“I like to do cookies,” Rosado said, “I like to bake them and put them out.

“I know lunch starts at 10:30, so the cookies need to be ready.”

After graduation Rosado wants to become a police officer, but she is learning basic life skills within the program.

“[I’ve learned to] protect myself and not be rude.”

Wilson also said the program focuses on getting the students familiar with public transportation and independence.

“Here they do work for themselves, rather than their parents doing it for them,” Wilson said, adding that watching them grow is what makes her job worthwhile.

“We can watch them excel, physically excel rather than take a test. You can also see they’re eager to come. You get the pleasure of them wanting to be here,” Wilson said.

“We’re at about 90 percent attendance.”

Another student, Mauricio Diaz, is in his second year at the school and working with Gourmet Dining.

“[I] put food out, I clean, I do cups, cereal, yogurt,” Diaz said. He has been increasingly getting more responsibility at Locke’s.

Although his favorite food to eat is french fries, Diaz made sure to add that fruit is his favorite food to provide to Manhattan College students.

“Strawberries are fun to do,” he said.

Another aspect Diaz touched upon was how helpful the staff at Locke’s is along with his teachers.

“They help me understand how to hold  [a] spoon, I was holding it the wrong way,” Diaz said. “They teach us to clock in and out, it’s our responsibility.”

From the fruit, to the cookies, to Tex Mex, to the friendly smiles, these students all change the culture of the eating experience at Manhattan College.

Success is the typical outcome from this program, as it continues to benefit special education students, Jaspers and Gourmet Dining.